MONTICELLO — In a year that saw nearly every county in the state suffer from an economic slump, Lawrence County bucked the trend.
No major plants or businesses closed during the year. Instead, economic developers reported numerous expansions and new businesses, aided by millions of dollars in grants.
“There were no closures this year, and we’ve been very encouraged by that,” said Paul McLain, executive director of the Lawrence County Community Development Association (LCCDA). “Manufacturers have had to market more aggressively and many are looking at new marketing areas, such as potential export markets, but they’ve adapted.”
Last week, the LCCDA announced two additional grants totaling nearly $1 million to assist American Apparels, a uniform/promotional clothing manufacturer that is moving into one of the two vacant buildings previously occupied by Kellwood Corp.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is providing a $450,000 grant and the U.S. Community Adjustment and Investment Program, created for communities that have lost a significant number of jobs because of NAFTA, is providing a $500,000 grant. Last month, the town of Monticello received a $238,670 grant from the Small Municipalities and Limited Population County Fund, created as part of the Advantage Mississippi Act approved by legislators last year, to provide embroidery equipment and water system upgrades. The company will add 65 jobs in Lawrence County.
“All total, we received quite a bit of assistance for American Apparels,” McLain said. “The company is also making a substantial capital investment in the project and will be spending a lot of their own resources on marketing, materials and other in-kind services in the startup.”
When Kellwood, Lawrence County’s second largest employer, announced in October 1999 it would move its operation out of the country, more than 300 jobs were lost at the Monticello plant, roughly 30% of the community’s workforce. Last year, Kellwood donated the property to the county.
Earlier this year, state and local officials enticed Foster Millworks, a Mississippi-based manufacturer of wood cabinets and game calls, to expand into one of the vacated Kellwood buildings. Last month, Lawrence County learned it would receive a $512,894 grant to assist the company in building upgrades, including a dust collection system and other needed improvements for its conversion from a garment plant to a wood products facility. The company is receiving additional state assistance through a $247,500 Mississippi Development Authority Energy Improvement Program loan.
With the expansion, Foster Millworks will double the number of employees, from 15 to 30, with a goal of expanding their sales and operations staff to 50 people within two or three years. The company is investing more than $350,000 in facility upgrades and equipment purchases, is leasing the building from Lawrence County for a nominal fee, and will pay for maintenance costs, insurance fees, and related expenses.
Earlier this year, Laurel-based Hudson’s Inc. opened Hudson’s Rock Bottom in one of the last remaining vacant buildings in downtown Monticello. The building was formerly occupied by TWL Stores, which closed in 1999.
“Psychologically, it was a big boost to the town,” McLain said.
The Southeastern Emu Oil Processing Facility in Silver Creek, one of the only facilities of its kind in the Southeast, where cosmetic products, such as hand lotions, are made from processed emu oil, has been successful in the marketplace since it opened two years ago, McLain said.
“Some business dropped off since Sept. 11 because the export market was somewhat affected, but they’ve gained ground domestically by exhibiting their products at Mississippi Market, distributing products to malls and other marketplaces, developing a Web site, and hiring a full-time marketing director,” McLain said.
Since Atlas Bucket of Monticello, makers of dredging buckets for rivers and oceans, expanded this summer by adding a line of traveling water screens for power plants, orders for the new product have been brisk. The LCCDA helped Atlas Bucket obtain a $450,000 zero interest loan to make modifications to their existing buildings to accommodate both product lines.
BellSouth is scheduled to have ADSL central office deployments implemented in Monticello by the end of the year, providing economic developers another amenity to attract more business, McLain said.
“While that’s important, one of the most exciting events in Lawrence County happened last week, when the Mississippi Department of Transportation began accepting bids on the Highway 84 four-lane project,” McLain said. “The project will encompass a 15-mile stretch, a route over half the county, from the Lawrence-Lincoln county line to the Pearl River. That four-lane project is going to mean so much to future economic development efforts. We’ve been looking forward to that day anxiously for a long time.”
Not all business news has been rosy in Lawrence County. Last month, Joe N. Miles & Sons Inc., a sawmill in Silver Creek that recently underwent a $7.5- million expansion project to add a short log production line and to automate the plant for a more efficient and safer operation, was slapped with a $145,350 fine by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for lack of fall protection following an investigation into a fatality. An employee, who wore no fall protection, was killed May 7 after he fell approximately 17 feet from a lumber sorter to the mill’s concrete floor.
“We were saddened to hear about this worker’s death,” McLain said. “A sawmill is a very treacherous environment.”
Miles & Sons employs approximately 200 workers, 108 of those at its Silver Creek site.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or (601) 853-3967.